Should Leaders be Consistent or Flexible?

There are plenty of memorable soundbites that have been developed over the years intended to tell us what leadership is and how leaders are distinguished. For example:

  • Leadership is an art as opposed to a science
  • Leadership is something you do with people, not to people
  • Leaders do the right things compared to managers who do things right

And, if history is any indicator, infatuation with the topic isn’t going anywhere soon! There is an ongoing and almost insatiable desire to identify who leaders are, study where they come from, figure out what they do and determine (hopefully in transferrable steps) how they do it. At least part of the intrigue can be attributed to the reality that the topic has long integrated elements of its effective practice that, at face value, appear mutually exclusive. For instance:

QUESTION: “Should leaders be consistent or flexible?”

ANSWER: “Absolutely!”

Allow me to try and break that down a little.

CONSISTENCY – Let’s face it. There are some qualities, characteristics and perspectives leaders need to bring to the table every time! Here are three for your consideration (and yes, there are many, many more!):

  • Assumptions/Predispositions/Mindset – Effective leadership emanates from a belief system or a set of values that could most succinctly be described as “people are good.” As such, people have innate talent that forms the foundation of their true potential. Leaders see through the layers that often mask that potential and are energized by the opportunity to get their hands dirty molding that raw clay
  • Objectivity – Effective leaders are thoughtful people. In general, they are less likely to get swept up in the emotion that invariably accompanies an individual’s development or regression on a task that truly matters. They stay grounded in the present. To borrow from the book of wisdom of our founder Dr. Paul Hersey, “Leaders treat people where they are, not where they used to be, or have the potential to be”
  • Courage – Leadership really isn’t all that different from any other discipline; understanding it is one thing, doing it is something altogether different! Many thought leaders in our industry have made this distinction explicit over the years, but no one has done it better than Brené Brown. You really want to lead? Pick up a copy of “Dare to Lead” and learn how to take a flying jump into the arena!

FLEXIBILITY – When it comes time to engage as a leader, there is no uniform, sure-fire way to do it. As a matter of fact, the most inconsistent thing you can possibly do as a leader is to treat everyone you encounter the same. It simply doesn’t make sense!

The approach you employ needs to reflect the customized (in many cases, unique) circumstances of the situation and the person you find yourself attempting to influence. In general terms, that translates to developing both comfort and proficiency executing the following approaches:

  • Empowerment – Contrary to popular belief, there is absolutely nothing inherently good about empowerment. As a matter of fact, there are some in positions of leadership that have been known to employ this strategy as a mechanism for setting others up for failure or distancing themselves from projects they believe are fast-tracked for failure (this might be a good time to revisit the Assumptions/Predispositions/Mindset paragraph above!). When properly deployed (e.g., with people that have exhibited both competence and commitment for a task), empowerment can be an active accelerant for trust, engagement and retention
  • Collaboration – Effective collaboration is typically a function of competent individuals representing diverse perspectives that are tackling a complex problem. In that regard, the leader needs to be able to set the stage (“Here’s what we need to figure out …”), create an atmosphere where those present can articulate suggestions to address the challenge, then facilitate the mess that invariably accompanies passionate people lobbying for conflicting courses of action
  • Providing Direction – People that don’t know what they are doing are frequently reluctant to make that reality public knowledge. By the same token, they are the first to breathe a quiet sigh of relief when they are approached by a leader who tells them what to do and how to do it. This approach is typically a short-term strategy intended to create movement with those that (for whatever reason) do not have task-related competence, confidence or commitment

Each of these approaches work (and don’t work), depending upon the nuances of the situation the leader is attempting to impact. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of it this way:

When it comes to leadership, doing certain things consistently increases the probability of your success when it comes time to be flexible!


  1. Consider the three subsets of consistency identified previously:
    1. What is your strength?
    2. Where do you need development?
  2. Consider the three leadership approaches described previously:
    1. Which one “comes naturally?”
    2. Where do you struggle?